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Top 10 environmental stories o...

Top 10 environmental stories of 2009

By Cameron Scott, San Francisco Chronicle

The environment is a single system—something which can easily be lost given our focus on national and state borders and the boundary between water and land. That interconnectedness makes the case for an annual roundup of the most important developments affecting the planetary ecosystem.

10. California land conservation deals. Here’s a case of the silver lining: As real estate prices plunged, conservation groups found they could afford to buy wild lands to preserve them. The long fought-over Franklin Canyon was snatched from the jaws of development, and a deal was finally struck for the natural Eden along the Sonoma coast. Sierra meadows were secured to unite protected parcels, and the waterways of Shasta Big Springs Ranch were set aside to help revive salmon runs.

9. “Climate Gate.” This story was mostly a Balloon Boy tale: no there there (TGL has debunked it in two recent posts). But it revealed the lengths to which climate deniers continue to go to seed doubt about the climate which is already changing. Yet, to poke holes in the details of climate science by resorting to crime, exaggeration and drummed up media blitzes, like Balloon Boy’s father, is essentially to concede the basic point: Science provides ample evidence that the planet is changing, and common sense dictates that we get off our duffs and do something.

8. Asian carp knocking at the door of the Great Lakes. This has been a dramatic but under-reported story. In the 1970s, Southern Fish farms imported the voracious Asian carp to clean up the muck in their ponds. The population took off and made its way up the Mississippi River watershed. The fish are now at the very gates to the Great Lakes, where they would likely wipe out huge swathes of the native fish population in the largest fresh water system on Earth. The Mississippi and the Great Lakes are not naturally connected, but a canal was built to facilitate shipping: In other words, this problem is 100 percent of our own making. Environmentalists and the state of Michigan want to see the canals shut to keep the carp out, and the case heads to the Supreme Court in 2010.

7. Battle over gray wolves. The wolves of the Rocky Mountains have been the focus of another great battle. Based on what court rulings have dubbed insufficient science, the Bush administration took the gray wolf off the endangered species list. The Obama administration surprised environmentalists by okaying the move. Two states have conducted wolf hunts, killing many wolves that generally live in Yellowstone National Park and have been the subjects of groundbreaking studies of the long-misunderstood species. A suit charging the government with delisting the wolves illegally will be heard in federal court in early 2010.

6. California water deal. Our great state has serious liquidity problems, in more senses than one. Although it didn’t fix our budget problems (far from it), 2009 brought an historic deal that will begin to bring our water woes under control. But many important issues, including agriculture’s unchallenged claim to the lion’s share of the precious liquid, remain unresolved, so much work remains.

5. Beginning of the end of mountaintop removal mining? In September, the EPA ordered increased study for all mountaintop removal coal mining permits, citing possible violations of the Clean Air Act. Whether the nation continues to draw its power from coal or not, mountaintop removal is egregiously destructive and should be outlawed. Coal activists have sensed the increased momentum, organizing highly effective protests—sometimes with the help of celebrity scientist James Hansen and outright celebrity Daryl Hannah. Indeed, it’s been a bad year for coal power in general: No new plants were built, and a controversial coal-friendly transmission line was cancelled just this week. A West Virginia study also showed that coal costs communities more than it gives them in jobs, striking a major blow to the industry’s last great talking point.

4. EPA to regulate chemicals. While less dramatic, the EPA’s move to regulate chemicals will have a greater impact on most of our lives. The vast majority of chemicals are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is such a weak law that the EPA hasn’t even been able to ban asbestos. In San Francisco in October, EPA chief Lisa Jackson announced that the agency would be revamping the law. TGL offered a primer on what it will mean to consumers. Meanwhile, concerns about BPA continued to grow with study after study showing their harmful effects, particularly to babies and fetuses. And our chemical policy isn’t entirely in the clear: The FDA is tasked with regulating BPA, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. That agency has repeatedly deemed the stuff safe.

3. Progress toward cap-and-trade legislation. The House passed historic (though flawed) climate legislation six months ago. The Senate’s Republicans have thus far buried the bill in the Senate, but Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is backing a compromise bill. The EPA’s finding that carbon dioxide jeopardizes human health also threatens the Senate with executive action should the body fail to act. Most Americans support the legislation.

2. Copenhagen talks. On the one hand historic—if only because the United States agreed to do something—and on the other, tragically insufficient, the Copenhagen talks were good drama, complete with leaked documents and plenty of finger pointing. The real outcome is this: It will have to be average citizens, not heads of state, that bring about real action on the climate. Welcome to the next decade.

1. Climate change. It’s no longer an abstract threat; the planet is changing dramatically, refusing to wait for governments to get their acts together. The ’00s were the hottest decade on record. The sixth great mass extinction is already underway, and several species—including polar bears, Adélie penguins, and the humble pica are already being decimated. Studies show that all species will have to shift their habitats rapidly northward and/or to higher elevations; those that can’t will become extinct. Ice outside the Arctic is melting faster than previously expected, threatening to make predicted sea level changes look like child’s play. Sea level along the East Coast is already rising significantly. Shifts in the ice are also affecting the building blocks of the marine food chain, which could mean nothing short of oceanic collapse. The increasing acidity of the ocean as a result of CO2 absorption also poses a serious threat to coral reefs, which provide habitat for a quarter of all marine life.

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